Brazil seizes abortion drugs sent to women living in fear of Zika

Messages from pregnant women in Brazil resonate with despair.

“I think I’m doing the worst,” wrote one woman when her order for abortion medication didn’t arrive. “I really need help. I can’t eat anymore and I cry all the time.

The messages were sent to an international advocacy group that provided free abortion-inducing drugs to pregnant women who feared the Zika virus could cause serious birth defects.

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Now, however, the group has temporarily suspended operations in the country because Brazilian authorities confiscated the drugs in the mail. Abortion is prohibited in most cases in Brazil and drugs are illegal.

“It’s not fair to tell women they’re going to get a package, and it won’t get to them,” said Leticia Zenevich, spokeswoman for advocacy group Women on Web. “It’s very tragic.”

Even in the face of the Zika virus, providing pregnancy termination alternatives to women in a country where abortion is mostly illegal is proving nearly impossible, Zenevich said.

Women on Web, a Canadian group based in the Netherlands and operating around the world, said in February it had sent “dozens of packages” to women in Brazil, but only two packages had arrived. The others were apparently seized. The packages provided by Women on Web contained misoprostol and mifepristone, which can terminate a pregnancy.

Authorities admit that they confiscate abortifacient drugs sent through the mail because the drugs are banned in Brazil.

The Brazilian Health Surveillance Agency has declared it illegal for individuals to receive misoprostol – an abortifacient substance better known in Brazil under the brand name Cytotec – through the mail.

“Parcels are checked when they arrive at the post office, and if drugs are found, they are sent to us,” said Carlos Dias Lopes, the agency’s press secretary.

Lopes, whose office is responsible for approving and overseeing pharmaceuticals, told The Times, “We have a duty to send all illegal substances for destruction.”

Since February 1, Women on Web has been providing free misoprostol and mifepristone, a combination that increases the effectiveness of the procedure, to women in Zika-affected countries.

In Brazil, 95% of packages were seized, the group said in a statement.

Lopes said his agency was unaware of the origin of the packages because it was not part of the government agency’s job.

The World Health Organization lists misoprostol and mifepristone on its Model List of Essential Medicines which “meet the priority health needs of the population”, but includes the annotation “when permitted by national legislation and when is culturally acceptable”. He also notes that the use of these drugs requires “close medical supervision”.

Two-week-old Sophia, born with microcephaly, attends a physiotherapy session in February at Pedro I Municipal Hospital in Campina Grande, Brazil.

(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Brazil is among several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that prohibit abortion in most cases.

In Brazil, it is only allowed when necessary to save a woman’s life, in cases of rape, or in the case of a birth defect known as anencephaly. Calls to relax the country’s abortion laws in the face of the Zika outbreak have been met with fierce opposition from clergy and some politicians.

According to Women on Web, nearly a third of women who ordered abortion medication from them did so out of fear of Zika. Scientists suspect the mosquito-borne virus is linked to an increase in cases of microcephaly, a rare condition in which babies are born with unusually small heads.

Zenevich said the organization received 9,500 emails last year from women mostly in Brazil requesting abortion medication, and an additional 10,400 emails from women in the Spanish-speaking Americas.

Fear of facing motherhood in the age of Zika has increased demand for drugs, Zenevich said.

Reproductive rights advocates fear that lack of access to abortion pills is driving women to seek out dangerous options to end a pregnancy.

“We have a situation here in Brazil in which women have clandestine abortions and in which women die,” said Sonia Coelho, spokesperson for the National Campaign to Legalize Abortion. “This has consequences…mainly for the poorest women and black women, who cannot afford to have abortions in a safer place.

Although illegal and relatively safe clandestine abortions are available in Brazil for those who can pay around $800 or more, nearly four times the monthly minimum wage.

The flood of emails from women who ordered the drugs from Women on Web but did not receive them was rampant.

One woman, whose medication was twice confiscated, wrote to the group saying she had no options: “Here in my town there is nothing else to do, it is either your service or nothing.

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Some who ordered the confiscated drugs feared being “hounded” and facing criminal charges, as one woman put it.

The group advises women with the means to find a post office box in another South American country, such as neighboring Argentina, where packages could be sent. But for many low-income women who seek help, the option is simply unrealistic.

Even before the Zika crisis, a thriving fake abortion pill business had sprung up, Coelho said. Many women resort to buying drugs from dealers only to find they are fake and sometimes dangerous, she said.

“We’ve had cases of women calling us for advice, saying they’ve purchased Cytotec but it didn’t work,” Coelho said. “What can we say? there is nothing but her
can do. Who will she complain to since the drug is banned in Brazil?

Special Envoy Rigby reported from São Paulo and Times writer Simmons reported from Los Angeles.

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